The sight was a chilling experience and boys realised that war is always not as enjoyable as played on a PS3, “sad,” someone muttered and Dilip Da stumbled on to something familiar, but an anomaly to the dingy place. He had strayed to the room opposite to the stairway which had the back entrance that was locked. The room was mainly lit up with sun’s rays penetrating through the crevices. This was his Einstein moment of his life; he had discovered an old 500 bug car that went missing from the colony a few years ago.
A British world war veteran lived in the colony with his Indian wife and both passed away a decade ago. The car belonged to them and it had been abandoned in the colony as there were no takers. Stray dogs usually used to cuddle inside the door-less car in cold winters. It probably went missing without anybody noticing its absence.
The boys refuted Dilip Da and said this is a different vehicle as it was having doors and other elements intact making it distinctly different from the one they remembered seeing when they moved in as kids. It was dusty with creepers and leaves covering almost three quarters of the car.
They moved to the stairway and it was spiral with the roots of the banyan trees hanging wild. They curved their heads to look at the end of the spiral stairway and saw that there was a door half open and at least 300 steps had to be crossed before reaching the pinnacle of the qila.
“Chale,” Vinay asked the boys and they agreed in unison, Dilip Da had doubts about the stability of the stairway as it was old and could possibly give way during their ascent. At a distance the boys heard a very familiar noise, squeaking of the gate, probably that of the qila. They looked at each other, suddenly Dilip Da raised his index finger to his mouth and signalled “sshhhh, keep quiet," they were right. It was the noise of the gate and soon they heard footsteps at the main entrance.
Fear gripped the lot and Manav felt a drop of sweat tricking down his spine. They huddled quickly below the landing of the staircase which remained open for most part of the side facing the room with the closed entrance. They lay quiet one over the other and only Aarav, Aadhi and Dilip Da crouched with and old iron case covering their torso and the curved stair case over their head. They heard the footsteps louder and deep voices that cleared their throats for a deeper breath.
They trembled and sweat smeared all over their faces; a spider crawled over from Aarav’s head on to his shoulder then on to Aadhi who was next to him. Aadhi who feared even a small insect in his washroom had little choice but to remain intact. “Peti leke aa” said a deep voice”, There were two voices heard, but there was a sense of comfort in the voices which gave the sense that they were regulars here.
Bidi smoke filled the air soon and Hari was allergic to this smell, he could get asthma anytime and this would give away their presence. Vinay who lay over Hari was wearing a full sleeve t shirt with detachable sleeves, he delicately removed it and rolled it and held it around Hari’s nose ensuring the smell got filtered. They heard noises of tools and suddenly the footsteps faded away. This was the longest twenty minutes that the boys experienced ever, being punished and standing outside the class seemed trivial compared to what they experienced. They remained still for a while and finally they heard the cranking noise of the gate latch, Aadhi broke the long pause “now I understand how the gate was latched this morning as we left it open the last evening.”
Scrambling out in both relief and fear they ran out of the qila and continued to walk fast till they reached Dilip Da’s stand. “Kahan ko gaye sab? Where is my lantern, I cannot iron in the evening without light” dhobi asked Dilip Da as they began to pant a bit and clear the lengthy cobwebs all around them.
Dilp Da looked as if a thunderbolt struck him and was quiet animated with all his hair dishevelled, he muttered back to the dhobi “abhi de dunga, wait karo”. Frantic nervousness was prevalent among the boys as they looked around in fear. Dilip Da ushered the boys in to the changing room of the cycle stand regrouped themselves. They asked each other whether anyone saw them coming out of the qila, whether the two intruders saw them. They quip after a round of the same questions going over and over and decided never to go back to the qila again and that probably no one saw them, and even if someone did, they could hardly help it. So, they decided to stay away from that place and not to speak about it in public or move around alone outside the colony just in case the intruders saw them run out of the qila.
They came out as if the world remained the same but their eyes beamed bigger and they felt all the world was looking at them. They decided to first buy a lantern for the Dhobi and silence his queries as to their whereabouts and more importantly his petty lantern. It was Saturday evening which meat there was a shandy nearby, they contributed money and managed to buy a lantern and told him the one he gave broke and this was a replacement.
The boys decided to return home early and play a game of soccer early in the morning. None of them could go to sleep, late at night Aarav moved to his parents’ room and snuggled there and woke up late in the morning. Neither of them made it to the ground for soccer. Later that day they met at the cycle stand, they spoke about the cricket series between England and Australia and other school stuff but each one of them intentionally avoided the Qila topic. They went back home and decided to meet at school the next day. Suddenly Manav remembered the weekend assignment that was not done, they were pre-occupied with their escapades and relieved after the unit tests got over the day before, that the assignments took a back seat. Hari said, “we will ask permission for a day or two” and they settled with this solution.
Next day, at the cycle stand Aarav waited for his mates to join in, Aadhi came out of his home with the not so confident appearance, Aarav sensed and cut in, “should we bunk the class today to do assignments?” Aadhi’s face lit up like a 100 watts bulb and he readily agreed. They convinced all others of the same solution and decided to use Dilip Da’s shed to do the assignment. They waited till all their fathers moved to the work area and again re-grouped in the shed at 9:30 am. Dilip Da of all people came up with a brilliant idea “lets hide behind the water tank opposite the qila today and observe who goes inside and other details”, Hari refused and Manav too refused along with Hari, but the rest seemed convinced about the idea of unlocking the mystery. Finally after some convincing talk by Aadhi, they all agreed they proceed in a different route and take a position behind the water tank pillars for observation.
With zeal the boys moved swiftly with Dilip Da and hid behind the tank. They waited till noon with no luck, they decided to eat what they had packed for school and so they sat in a shade and began to nibble and suddenly two men appeared behind them, coming with a huge iron bar and a bag. They walked with a gait and looked at the boys who were eating. Coming from the same route the boys took to avoid the intruders, they looked bulky and eyes blood shot. Instinctively boys knew it was the same as the intruders. “We are done,” thought Hari, but the men ambled their way towards the qila gate and moved inside. There was relief when Dilip Da said “they are probably the two men who came in to the qila yesterday, if so they have not seen us.” The men came out in 5 minutes and went back the same way they came.
“We must get back to our colony,” said Dilip Da and they walked back with lighter hearts realising the men had not seen them the previous day. “Aadhi, these are the same people who came yesterday?,” Manav asked in disbelief, “probably, if we are lucky,” replied Aarav. They now had their minds clear to think and plan better. We will bunk school whole of this week and find out this age-old mystery,” Vinay declared. The rest refuted him and Aadhi said, “no way,” “I have an idea,” Karthik chipped in “we will get back to the fort this weekend in the early morning and rummage the entire place and find out, early morning no one will come”, everybody seemed convinced, “and in the meantime I will research more about the qila,” said Dilip da.
They continued with their assignments and went back to school the next day. Each one of them waited till Friday evening till they hatch a plot for the ensuing Saturday early morning adventure.
To be continued…
A Grandson, Husband and Father of Two, S Jaganathan, is one of the Director's of The Verandah Club. He is an avid traveller, interested in trendspotting and a firm believer in the philosophy - Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitah.
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